Friday, November 18, 2011

Drone Caucus and Contracts

At the drone fair this year in the Rayburn House Office Building, Cong. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) praised Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) for being a “big defender of the military.” As chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, McKeon is also a major defender of military contractors, especially those with production facilities in his southern California district.

In a new policy report by the Center for International Policy and Common Cause, William Hartung says that McKeon is the arms industry’s most forceful advocate in the battle to bolster the Pentagon budget. Furthermore, according to Hartung:

[Buck McKeon] is the largest recipient of defense industry campaign contributions in the Congress, receiving over three quarters of a million dollars from 2009 through 2011, including $590,000 to his campaign fund and $191,000 to his leadership PAC.

He has numerous defense plants in his district, including Lockheed Martin’s famous “Skunk Works” research facility, as well as factories and research sites operated by Boeing, General Atomics (the maker of the Predator and Reaper drones), and Northrop Grumman. And he is the chair of the congressional Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Caucus.

McKeon is also a central player in the ongoing defense spending debate. As the Armed Services Committee chairman, he has held hearings on the need for continuing high Pentagon budgets. Hartung observes that he has allied himself with conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise and the Heritage Institute, and meets “behind the scenes with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and the chief lobbyists for contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamics.”

The U.S. military is driving the surging market for UAVs. Drone purchases accounted for more than one-third of the Air Force’s 2010 aircraft budget.  The 2012 DoD budget includes $4.8 billion for UAVs, continuing, according to the Pentagon, “strong funding for unmanned aerial vehicles that enhance intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities.”
While DoD and DHS have favored the Predator drones manufactured in San Diego by General Atomics, other military contractors, notably Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, are seeking to make more inroads into this booming market with its own UAVs. With its Global Hawks, the drones that the Northern Commands uses for drug war surveillance in Mexico, Northrup Grumman has hit on a new contracting payload.

There’s little obstructing the U.S. military from deploying drones in its wars and intelligence operations. But along the border and elsewhere in U.S. airspace, drone proponents face restrictions established by the Federal Aviation Administration. 

As one of its chief goals, the House drone caucus aims to open U.S. airspace to the widespread use of drones by federal and local law enforcement agencies. Although the FAA is acceding to the demands for increased drone access to more U.S. airspace, the drone caucus is not satisfied.

At the insistence of the drone caucus, the House approved an amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill (which remains stalled in Congress over Republican anti-union demands) that promotes the integration of unmanned systems into the entire national airspace by 2015.  When announcing the passage of the caucus-sponsored amendment, McKeon lambasted the FAA for its “languid” process of authorizations for drones to share U.S. airways.

Candice Miller, a Republican who represents a Michigan border district, has become one of the most influential members of the drone caucus. In her new role as chair of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, Miller has pressured the FAA to act quicker to increase drone access to national airspace.

Miller, who calls herself a “strong supporter of using UAVs,” has been using her new chairmanship to insist that DHS pay more attention to the northern border. “I like to remind folks we actually have two borders, so the northern border as well. And both of them need to be secured,” said Miller in her opening statement at a subcommittee hearing on March 15.

More border security, whether in form of more Border Patrol stations or drones, means increased employment and revenues for her district.  In part because of her advocacy, DHS has opened an Operations Integration Center on the Michigan border and greatly increased the use of the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in her district for homeland security operations.

Lately Miller has been using her new position of influence to pressure the FAA to authorize drone flights in northern Michigan  – in no small part because DHS would likely then situate one of the many planned UAV operating centers at the base. While unmanned, UAVs require teams of fifty or more members to operate as well as a network of ground operating stations.

Advocacy for increased border security on the northern border and increased UAV deployment, as well as pressure on the FAA to open airspace for drones, is not confined to the House. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) has also brought these the issues of security, increased drone presence, and FAA airspace approvals together.

During the debate over the FAA reauthorization bill, Senator Schumer stressed that U.S. national security is at stake:

The FAA has been very hesitant to give authorization to these UAVs due to limited air space and restrictions that they have. I certainly can appreciate those concerns; but when we’re talking about Customs and Border Protection or the FBI, what have you, we are talking about missions of national security. And certainly there’s nothing more important than that.

For Schumer, as with the members of the House drone caucus, stated concerns about border security and national security overlap with the search for more federal pork.

Schumer is seeking FAA approval to extensive UAV testing in the airspace around New York’s Hancock Air Base, which is where the military stations the fleet of killer drones that are being used in the Middle East and South Asia. A report by the Syracuse Post-Standard noted that if approved by the FAA “it would help ensure the future of 1,215 jobs” at the air base and “potentially lead to millions of dollars in radar research contracts for local defense companies.”

Boys and Toys

The U.S. public has expressed little concern about the increased use of killer drones in U.S. war-fighting and counterterrorism operations under the Obama administration despite frequent reports of deaths of untargeted civilians.  In Pakistan and within the United Nations, there are rising complaints that drone attacks violate international law and result in a pattern of noncombatant civilians – what the U.S. military calls “collateral damage.”

Yet all is not quiet on the home front. 

The Center for Constitutional Rights is taking the U.S. government to task for ignoring international law, while the American Civil Liberty Union charges that drone surveillance tramples civil rights and violates individual privacy. Peace and anti-war groups like the Friends Committee on National Legislation have also criticized the administration’s increased use of attack drones.

With respect to border security, there is no public outcry or activism against drone deployment despite its massive costs and dubious benefits.  Similarly, there has been little public concern about the virtual fence, the other major high-tech project to secure the border – in sharp contrast to widespread opposition to the steel border fence.

The relative absence of public discussion about the U.S. government’s increased deployment of drones can be, in part, explained by government secrecy and by lack of opportunities for public review.

American confidence that most problems have high-tech solutions may also help explain the lack of public or policymaker criticism of the Pentagon and DHS drone programs.  But as drones increasingly appear on the home front, it’s likely that drone traffic will raise new concern about the threats to the safety of air travel.

Following the federal government’s lead, local law enforcement agencies are planning to use drones for surveillance. Reacting to the announcement that the Houston-area sheriffs department had purchased a drone, Terry Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, remarked: “I gotta tell you, it sort of looks like boys and their toys.  We’re giving up our privacy, we’re letting the government have way too much power.”

Burke’s comments could just as well referred to the federal government’s drone programs, and to the drone enthusiasm of the House drone caucus.  

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Congressional Drones

Drones play an increasing role in foreign wars, on the border, and in Congress.

At the Unmanned Systems Fair on Sept. 21 the latest drone technology was on display.  The drone fair, which took place in the lobby of the Rayburn House Office Building, also displayed the easy mix of government and business. Also on exhibit was the kind of bipartisan unity often seen when Democrats and Republicans rally around security and federal pork.

Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) and Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), co-chairs of the Unmanned Systems Caucus, welcomed the drone industry and its supporters to Capitol Hill.

The drone caucus, which has more than 50 members, cosponsored the drone fete with the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry group that brings together the leading drone manufacturers. Drone orders from the federal government are rolling in to AUVSI corporate members, including such top military contractors as General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and Northrup Grumman. 

Buck McKeon, who also the House Armed Services Committee, thanked the industry for its support of “our warfighters.” In his opening remarks, Cuellar stressed the fundamental role of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in ensuring homeland security and border security.

The Obama administration’s enthusiasm for drone attacks and surveillance in Afghanistan and elsewhere has helped consolidate the Pentagon’s commitment to drone warfare. Paralleling the increased use of drones in foreign wars is the rising commitment of the Department of Homeland Security to deploy drones for border security.

The drone business is projected to double over the next decade despite stagnant military budgets.  The annual global market is expected to rise from $5.9 billion to nearly $11.3 billion by 2020 – with the United States accounting for about three-quarters of the total research, development, and procurement markets.

U.S. government drone purchases -- not counting contracts for an array of related UAV services and “payloads” -- rose from $588 million to $1.3 billion over the past five years.

In the search of a high-tech fix its much-criticized border security operations. DHS is becoming increasingly committed to drone deployment. The administration’s enthusiasm for drone surveillance mirrors its continuing commitment to ground-based electronic surveillance projects, which have quietly proceeded despite the department’s repeated inability to demonstrate the benefits of the “virtual fence.”

The Office of Air and Marine of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) currently has a fleet of eight UAVs, with another two drones expected by early next year.  CBP’s strategic plan calls for the eventual deployment of 24 drones.

CBP continues to add drones even though agency officials acknowledge that they have neither the skilled teams nor the technical infrastructure necessary to deploy the drones it already has.  The agency says that drones function as a “force multiplier,” but it has never offered any evidence to document this claim that drones increase the efficiency of the Border Patrol and are more effective that piloted aircraft or ground patrols.

Nonetheless, border security hawks, especially in Texas, continue to escalate their demands for more drones to patrol the border and Mexican airspace.

Besides drone caucus co-chair Cuellar, who represents the South Texas border district that includes Laredo, other Texan drone proponents include Governor Rick Perry, Cong. Michael McCaul, the Republican congressman who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, and Silvestre Reyes, who represents the El Paso district and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.

As part of the U.S. global drug war and as an extension of border security, unarmed drones are also crossing the border into Mexico.  The U.S. Northern Command has acknowledged that the U.S. military does fly Global Hawk drones into Mexico to assist the President Felipe Calderón’s government drug war. Drone caucus members McCaul and Reyes, among others, have called for increased drone surveillance in Mexico.

Caucus and Campaigns

Formed in 2009 by McKeon, the Unmanned Systems Caucus (formerly called the UAV Caucus), aims to “educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of unmanned systems; actively support further development and acquisition of more systems, and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on unmanned system use and safety.”

The caucus states that it “works with the military, industry, the Department of Homeland Security, NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, and other stakeholders to seek fair and equitable solutions to challenges created by UAV operations in the U.S. National Air Space.”

Members include a collection of border hawks, immigration hardliners, and leading congressional voices for the military contracting industry. These include Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), who heads the House Immigration Reform Caucus; Candice Miller (R-Minn.), who heads the Homeland Security subcommittee that reviews the air and marine operations of DHS; Joe Wilson (R-SC); Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.); Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.); Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.); and Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.).

The drone caucus works closely with the industry association AUVSI, which, in addition to the drone fair, sponsored a UAV Action Day on Capitol Hill last year.

AUVSI has its own congressional advocacy committee that is closely linked to the caucus. The keynote speaker at the drone association’s recent annual conference was McKeon, who is also slated to be the featured speaker at AUVSI’s AIR Day 2011 – in recognition, says AUVSI”s president that Congressman McKeon “has been one of the biggest supporters of the unmanned systems community.”

While the relationship between increasing drone contracts and the increasing campaign contributions received by drone caucus members can only be speculated, caucus members are favored recipients of contributions by members of the unmanned systems association AUVSI.

In the 2010 election cycle, political action committees associated with companies that produce drones donated more than $1.7 million to the 42 congressional members who were members of the congressional drone caucus. The leading recipient was McKeon, who currently chairs the powerful House Armed Services Committee, with Cong. Reyes coming in a close second.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, whose Predator drone production facilities are located in McKeon’s southern California district, is the fifth largest source of McKeon’s campaign contributions, following Lockheed, Northrup Grumman, Boeing, and SLM.

Since 2005 – the year that DHS began purchasing Predator drones, the company’s political action committee has contributed $1.6 million to members of the drone caucus, according to information from the Center for Responsive Politics.

In that period General Atomics has received $242 million in drone orders from DHS alone. The funds for the latest DHS drone purchases came not for the department’s annual budget but from a $600 million “emergency” supplemental bill that included $32 million to buy two more Predator drones for border security.

Members of the unmanned systems caucus, including McKeon, Cuellar, and McCaul, boast of their influence in pressuring DHS to increase the pace of its drone program.

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Rick Perry's States' Rights Populism

The Return of States’ Rights

Why Rick Perry Is Important Even If He Loses
Rick Perry rose from dirt-poor origins on the desolate plains of northern West Texas to become the state’s longest-serving governor. Now the guy from tiny Paint Creek who won’t take it any more—an angry man tired of seeing America run down and ordinary Americans demoralized by big government—wants to be president.
Perry has a well-deserved reputation for keen political instincts. Having entered politics as a Democrat, he followed former Governor John Connally and other conservative Texas Democrats into the Republican Party in 1989. He debuted as a border security hawk during his 2006 reelection bid and broadcast his libertarian and states’ rights ideology in March 2009, just as the Tea Party backlash was showing its first signs of life. And he brandished his evangelical Christian faith at a conference of the like-minded only weeks before announcing his presidential candidacy. These well-timed shifts of focus have served Perry well: he has never lost an election.
But Perry does not simply keep his ear to the ground. He claims he is “conservative to the core,” and we can readily believe him.
He is socially conservative, committed to Christian moral precepts he says animated the nation’s founders. A proud Eagle Scout, Perry also defends the Boy Scouts of America for their policy of prohibiting atheists and gays, and he believes in intelligent design, not evolution.
Perry is also a conservative on border and national security issues. As governor, he has brought together border sheriffs, state police, and the Texas Rangers in a campaign to “protect Texans” from the Mexican drug gangs allegedly crossing into Texas and bringing drug war–related violence with them. He has invested several hundred million dollars along the Rio Grande through initiatives such as Operation Border Star, which, according to Perry’s Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw, aims to “leave no exploitable seam” in the border.
Perry’s militaristic approach to security extends well beyond national boundaries. U.S. global leadership requires a strategy of “peace through strength,” he says. To preserve our God-given “American exceptionalism,” he envisions an “America that has the strongest national defense in the world, by an insurmountable order of magnitude.”
Finally, Perry is fiscally conservative. His outlook is founded on confidence that free markets, personal responsibility, charity, and civic virtue will resolve most economic and social problems. He has pushed a “Texas model” with no state taxes on income, capital gains, or corporate dividends. The Texas model stands in sharp contrast to the “job-killing” policies of Washington and higher-tax states, such as Massachusetts and California, that provide more social services. It is a real alternative to what Perry believes the Democratic Party and big-government Republicans offer: a “road to serfdom” and a “slow march to socialize” government.
What is most distinctive about Perry’s small-government conservatism, however, is a new federalist platform that aims to elevate anti-government, anti-elite sentiments into a coherent philosophy of states’ rights. The idea is to give social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and security hawks a unifying framework in their fight against the Washington “establishment.”
At the same time, Perry’s states’ rights framework helps make sense of some of his own big-government policies, such as accepting $38 billion in federal stimulus dollars and relying on $72.5 billion in federal funds to shore up Texas’s $187.5 billion budget for 2010–11. Perry sees no problem with depending on the government that he condemns, arguing, “Politically, it is hard for politicians to refuse such funds—particularly when it comes right out of the pockets of their constituents.” That, Perry says, is the “box Washington puts us in.”
If victorious, Perry would undertake the next phase in the right’s counterrevolutionary revolution: a wholesale downsizing of national government that, by unleashing private enterprise and free markets, would “save America”—and in the process, if the similar although less radical reforms of the Reagan Revolution are a guide, broaden the gap between the rich and the rest of us.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Border Security Boom in New Mexico

Training exercise in Playas 
(The following brief overview of border security operations in New Mexico is excerpted from Border Warriors, an article in the Silver City-based Desert Exposure monthly.)

As a border state, New Mexico has been blessedly free of the anti-immigrant vigilantism and the ranting of border hawks that have agitated Texas and Arizona. 

Over the past year, however, Governor Susana Martinez has deviated from this tradition with fearmongering about border security and new scapegoating of immigrants for crime and traffic accidents. This plays to her conservative base but has met staunch popular and policy-community resistance.

Like its neighbors, New Mexico has benefited from an infusion of border security funding and infrastructure projects. Since 2005, when the Bush administration launched its Secure Border Initiative and the immigrant crackdown began in earnest, the New Mexico border has had a security makeover. 

A stark 18-foot-high steel fence rises for five miles on either side of the Columbus-Palomas port-of-entry, picking up again west of the Santa Teresa POE and continuing east past El Paso and beyond Ft. Hancock. A vehicle barrier now protects most of the Bootheel's border with Mexico. The tiny, scarcely used Antelope Wells POE received a $1.5 million upgrade with federal stimulus funding.

Training exercise in Playas, New Mexico

Hidden in the remote Bootheel is one of the nation's chief homeland security, border security and counterterrorism training centers. 

The Playas Training and Research Center brings together most branches of the expanding post-9/11 homeland security apparatus, including the various agencies of the Department of Homeland Security, the military and the drug war agencies of the Justice Department, as well as the state's own local and state law enforcement agencies — all under the auspices of New Mexico Tech in Socorro, which now promotes its expertise in the "science of security."

Eager to cash in on the homeland security/border security boom with its multibillion surge in DOD, DHS and DOJ grants, New Mexico Tech established the Border Security Center (BORSEC) for Research, Education, Training and Technical Assistance "to aid in countering border violence." Meanwhile, border area crime continues to fall, and state and federal officials are hard put to document where all this US border violence is.

The Grant County Sheriff's Office is one of the most unlikely beneficiaries of border security funding, through the DHS Stonegarden Program that funds overtime pay and equipment purchases for border law enforcement. 

While Grant County doesn't touch the border, it qualifies for annual grants approaching $1 million, which has enabled the county to purchase new vehicles, including a barely used state-of-the-art mobile crime lab, and ply the department with overtime pay for deputies who make the two-hour trip to the Bootheel to patrol the road that passes through Hachita. The result has been a major uptick in traffic tickets, as well as an occasional apprehension of an illegal immigrant or two.

Undoubtedly, the border security boom has been good for Grant County and other parts of the greater borderlands. But there is little evidence that, as the sheriff's department attests in its quarterly reports to DHS, the department "has been successful in counteracting the ravages and terror of human smuggling, drug smuggling, destruction of property and associated criminal activities." 

There are few questions and no evaluation about the border security program in Grant County, or anywhere else, because border security is one of the few federal programs that enjoys bipartisan political support, particularly from border politicians eager to see more federal dollars flow into their region.

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Predators on Border, Hawks in Mexico

(First in a new Border Lines series on UAVs on the border.)

No doubt that drones can kill.  By stepping up the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in its foreign wars, the Obama administration has amply demonstrated the war-fighting value of Predator drones.  

Military targets are destroyed without directly risking U.S. lives.  Yes, collateral damage – nontargeted individuals -- is routine. But that’s war and for the Pentagon and the White House an accepted consequence of war, especially in this new age of technological warfare.

The Obama administration has not only dramatically increased the deployment of UAVs in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense have also dramatically escalated drone operations along the U.S.-Mexico border and within Mexico. 

The deployment of drones – Predators, Guardians, and Global Hawks – in border security and drug war operations hasn’t left a wake of collateral damage.  In part, that’s because the drones are not armed but used only for surveillance.

Other than the immense cost of the drones, there is little evidence that these high-tech border security and drug control operations have any impact at all. Nonetheless, the Obama administration and Congress keep increasing drone deployment along the border and in Mexico.  

Recently, DHS added three more Predators to its UAV fleet, even though it has failed to demonstrate the effectiveness of drone surveillance. What is more, DHS doesn’t have the sufficient funding or trained personnel to operate its current fleet of seven drones, which mostly remain parked at military bases.

The U.S. military – which hosts the drones on its bases in California, Florida, Arizona, and Texas -- is closely involved in the UAV operations of DHS.

In addition to participation in border security, which are authorized under its domestic defense and international drug control mandates, the Pentagon is also flying UAVs into Mexico as part of its collaboration with the Mexican military in the drug war.  These are Global Hawks, manufactured by Northrup Grumman, while the Predators (called Guardians when used for marine surveillance) that DHS flies along the border are products of General Atomics.

Border hawks hailed the announcement of more drones but continue to insist that many more UAVs are needed.  In August Governor Rick Perry asserted that increased UAV deployment will “provide real-time information to help our law enforcement” and thereby “drive the drug cartels away from our border.”  

Texas border hawks like Perry and congressional representatives Henry Cuellar (D) and Michael McCaul (R) argue that with its 1,234-mile border with Mexico, Texas needs more than a couple of drones to secure the border. DHS doesn’t disagree. The Air and Marine Division of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency projects the eventual deployment of 24 UAVs.  

DHS argues that the UAVs are a “force multiplier” in that they allow the Border Patrol to increase its “operational control” of the border without adding thousands of additional agents.  Congressman Cuellar, who represents a border district including Laredo, says, “The addition will further allow CBP to receive precise, real time surveillance, allowing the deployment of fewer agents in a specific area, while intercepting drugs, human smuggling and acts of terrorism.”

Neither Cuellar nor DHS offer any evidence to support these claims.  Yet even if the drones did function as a force multiplier and did provide “precise, real-time surveillance” that decreased illegal border crossings, the high cost of this high-tech solution for border security raises questions about the advisability and viability of the drone border security program.

The close ties that congressional proponents of UAV deployment with the UAV industry raise other questions about the credibility and integrity of the leading UAV advocates. Congressman Cuellar is co-chairman of the 50-member Unmanned Systems Caucus, whose co-chairman is Cong. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), who represents the southern California San district were drones are manufactured. 

See related:

Fallacies of High-Tech Fixes for Border Security, CIP International Policy Report, at:

Bring the Drones In: Reyes and Homeland Security, at:

Join Border Wars Policy Group to follow/discuss border security, immigrant imprisonment, and drug policy issues at: